Yemen drone strikes increase while al-Qaida grows

By Adam Baron

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Thursday, Dec. 27 2012 9:32 p.m. MST

SANAA, Yemen — In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, Yemen — home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — has come close to eclipsing Pakistan as a key focus of American counter-terrorism efforts.

In 2011, then-CIA director David Petraeus characterized the group as the "most dangerous node in the global jihad" and the American government's action has appeared to echo the rhetoric. Notably, the number of American airstrikes in Yemen, largely carried out by unmanned drones, has surged over the past year, as much as tripling in frequency in comparison with 2011.

The airstrikes are just one element of a multifaceted engagement in Yemen. A small number of U.S. forces are stationed there to provide strategic assistance to the Yemeni military, while Washington has provided more than $300 million, split among military, humanitarian and development aid.

Even as the drone strikes have increased in frequency, they remain a center of debate, overshadowing most other facets of the American and Yemeni governments' efforts against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

In contrast to those in Pakistan, drone strikes in Yemen take place with the government's permission. Yemen's president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took power last February in the wake of an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has gone as far as publically endorsing the strikes. That's a marked shift from the silence of his predecessor.

In remarks made during a September visit to the United States, Hadi echoed Obama administration officials and cast the strikes as a key tool in the battle against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He explicitly contrasted the drones' capabilities with those of the aging fleet of the Yemeni air force, which is largely unable to operate at night.

While Saleh was once - controversially - characterized as a key American counter-terrorism ally, officials on both sides have spoken of a sharp improvement in cooperation since Hadi's inauguration. They said the strengthened relations already had begun to yield results, pointing to last spring's offensive in the southern Abyan province, when Yemeni troops and local fighters, backed by American air and intelligence support, dislodged militants affiliated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula from territory they'd held for more than a year.

Regardless, the al-Qaida group and affiliated fighters have shown little sign of giving up the fight. Militants have continued to launch attacks in Abyan and elsewhere, appearing to push back against suggestions that they've been contained, while bombings and assassinations by alleged al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula operatives in urban areas have underscored the group's ability to strike within Yemen's cities.

A key stated goal of American airstrikes in Yemen is targeting specific high-ranking militants in the al-Qaida group. But despite the surge in drone strikes, the group's core leadership has survived the year nearly intact, while its rank and file is estimated to have more than tripled since 2009. The group's resilience, analysts say, strongly suggests that the strategy being used to combat it is deeply flawed.

"Essentially what the U.S. is doing is bombing suspected AQAP targets in Yemen in the hopes that AQAP doesn't bomb the U.S.," said Gregory Johnsen, the author of "The Last Refuge," a recently released book on Yemen and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. "In my view, this is neither sustainable nor wise. We have seen AQAP grow incredibly fast in a remarkably short amount of time, expanding from 200-300 fighters in 2009, when the U.S. bombing campaign began, to more than 1,000 fighters today. That is more exacerbating and expanding the threat than it is disrupting, dismantling and defeating it."

Even if Yemen's new president has backed them, American drone strikes remain deeply controversial here.

Many see targeted killings as a violation of the nation's sovereignty and a sign of disrespect for the rule of law. Critics point to cases of civilian casualties in expressing their misgivings.

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